Growing up outside of Chicago and moving to the south has taught me that manners should not be equated with benevolence (or condescension or sexism), accent is not unswervingly linked with intelligence (no matter what the media may imply), and that people are pretty much the same everywhere—they just have different cultural wrappings. When I moved to Texas as a college student, I thought that men who opened doors were hitting on me, people who called me ma’am were being malevolently sarcastic, and half my professors were idiots because they emphasized different syllables than I did.
Though I still sometimes hate the pull of so many strangers’ eyes attempting to greet me when I walk down the street in Texas, I now find almost all servers in Chicago cold and unfriendly. You get used to a place, and its particular ways of showing respect for people—be it through acknowledgement or privacy.
And New York is no different. I mean, not that I’d really know. But, I’ve been thinking about this quality New Yorkers have since I was there for a week over New Years, and that was the best way to introduce it. The quality isn’t rudeness or any other harsh stereotype. It’s more self-congratulation for survival, for lack of a better term. All my friends in New York are transplants, so I’ve been able to watch them develop this particular New Yorker tone of increased confidence, caused just by continuing to exist while living in a borough.
For some it’s a tone of arrogance that oddly conflates the reasons that New York is the best with the reasons it can be a really hard place to live. I’ve heard someone proudly describe encountering human feces in a subway during an explanation of why it’s not worth breathing air that hasn’t been circulating in those dirty tunnels under Manhattan. For some it has a tinge of exhaustion—an “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but at least I’m succeeding” vibe.
On the other hand, this quality has an inclusionary clause built in. As often as you hear New Yorkers scoff at newcomers and say things like “they’ll never make it” or “they aren’t tough enough,” you hear them talk about the family of friends they’ve developed, and without whom they wouldn’t have made it this long. Their own stories of transportation woe, housing nightmares, genuine physical danger, and dating despair are just episodes in an expansive communal narrative of shared perseverance and survival.
I’ve gotten annoyed in the past when New Yorkers act like anyone who doesn’t know avenues run north to south and streets run east to west is barely human. And yes, I just had to look that up to make sure. But getting off the defensive train, I’ve realized that I can’t treat an enormous city of people like they’re sociopaths. Being impressed with yourself for surviving the city and respecting others who do the same isn’t a character deficiency. It’s just a regular old pride of place. Texans love knowing what a whippoorwill sounds like; they glory in their sunsets, fight about the best Bar-B-Que, and think that honey is a perfectly acceptable way to address young women. Chicagoans are proud of their brassy midwestern friendliness; they will scoff if you don’t know east is towards the lake, and they will defend their favorite pizza place to the death. Sure these things are annoying. But they’re also great.
People talk about being in some sort of abusive relationship with New York, and I get that. It shoves you down—your stop is under construction, you’re splashed with filthy water from a cab, a stranger spits on you for no reason, and a rat runs into your leg—and then it woos you back—you watch the trees change color in Central Park, you still haven’t run out of amazing new restaurants to try, you meet another fascinating person, art, fashion, music, etc…where else!? But New York isn’t a person. It’s just a city filled with a lot of people, some of whom help you navigate and enjoy the place and some of whom will try to steal your wallet. Which brings us back: people are the same everywhere. When you get a lot of them together and make everything really expensive, I guess the extremes will be emphasized.
New York is a tough place. I’m guessing if I lived there I’d be impressed with myself for overcoming the inert obstacles as well as the animate ones (rat, pigeon, or human). But I’d also be grateful for the people who helped me along. Living in a small city, I can’t always relate to, and am generally envious of, the really cool professional and cultural opportunities my friends in New York take for granted; but I do get that other stuff. And, like anywhere else, that’s a lot of what I take with me when I leave.